I wish I could tell you it gets easier. I wish I could tell you this won’t hurt. I wish I could tell you that you are in control of the situation. I wish I had all the right words to take the pain away as you watch your parent endure this horrific illness.
It is difficult to even put into words how it feels to watch a parent who was once larger than life slowly deteriorate. When a loved one becomes ill, life as you know it dramatically changes. Watching your parent die is absolute hell. Watching my larger than life father wither away into a frail cancer patient with zero quality of life right before my eyes was agonizing and painful.
A dying parent who is suffering in pain is horrific. I would listen to my father scream in pain and it would feel as if someone was slowly gutting me. I would lay awake in the middle of the night terrified, wondering how much longer my father would survive, wondering what my life would be like as a fatherless daughter. When you watch a parent die, you die right alongside them.
A parent who is fading away is exhausting. You try your best to go through the motions of life, but it is next to impossible to not think of your parent who is suffering, and you desperately want to take away their pain.
The process of dying isn’t for the patient—it’s for the loved ones. Throughout the last few months of my father’s life, I needed to process how I was going to live, how I was going to feel. I had to prepare myself for my father’s death, and I did it by sitting by his side watching him lose his ability to eat, to drink, eventually to bathe himself, to walk to the bathroom, even to struggle to breathe. It was only after watching my father suffer that I was truly able to let him go. My brain told me to let go, but my heart wanted to hold on forever.
To some, that may sound selfish, but despite all his pain and suffering I was not ready to say goodbye. I was willing to compromise his quality of life, just so he could stay with us a little longer. My father spent the last four years of his life living on a feeding tube, trembling in horrific nerve pain. I hated seeing him in pain, but the thought of him dying terrified me. A dying parent makes you selfish.
I needed my father. I still do.
The sicker my father got, the more determined I was to “save” him. I would spend my free time either looking for someone who could “cure” him or I would sit by his side babbling about nonsense. And I was happy doing this because in my head it gave me something practical to do and I felt as if I was controlling the situation. I felt as if somehow, we were beating the cancer, and eventually my father would “get better”.
I spent the last four months of my father’s life talking nonstop to him and crying like a baby when I wasn’t with him. I was terrified of losing him. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I even made deals with him. My favorite was, “Dad if you don’t die I will get married in this hospital room tomorrow.”
Many times, I found myself studying my father’s hands trying to memorize how they looked when holding my hand as a little girl or holding the grandchildren he would never meet. It was not uncommon for me to stop and breathe in his scent while praying that I would never forget the little things.
Throughout all of this, I never asked my father how HE was feeling. I was too busy being terrified of losing my father, to stop for a moment and ask him what HE wanted or if HE was scared. It wasn’t until the day before he died when held his hand up and said, “please no more tests” that I realized it was time to say goodbye.
And suddenly, when your parent finds peace, you realize that your parent taught everything you need to know about life except how to survive without them. You might even realize that you would rather have your parent remain in that hospital bed where you could at least sit alongside him, holding his warm hand, than be gone. Selfish, but he was my dad and I will always need him.
I wish I could tell you it gets easier. I can tell you that grief is messy and complicated. It takes time. You will never “get over it” and it is OK to be sad. A piece of your heart will always be broken. Always remember the greater the love, the greater the grief. I want to tell you, that I understand what it’s like. All of it. The heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, sadness, the fear and the pain. I know it all too well.
I wish I could tell you that in time it won’t hurt as bad and it will get better, but I have learned that our grief lasts a lifetime. I can tell you that you are never alone in all of this. And as you navigate your own ebb and flow of grief, I promise to be your life-preserver when the waves of sadness threaten to suck you in. You are never alone in this. I wish I could tell you that it gets better, but I’m still waiting for my heart to not feel as if it was torn out of my chest. To my friends who still have their parents, be sure to cherish your parents every moment, not just on the special occasions.
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